Have you ever had anyone try to tell you an epic, life-changing story? Maybe it was about their wild night in Vegas, or a World Series win in the final inning by the Phillies? No matter how much they try to put you in the moment, you’ll always come to the same conclusion: you just had to be there. A night at East Passyunk’s Laurel is like that. Sure, a friend can tell you about the gorgeous, perfectly cooked dishes and warm, seamless service, but the magic of dining at the city’s best restaurant, like a once-in-a-lifetime story, can only be understood by experiencing it.
We first met Laurel in 2013 when SEPTA still took tokens and the small French restaurant was strictly tasting menu. After an expansion into the now-shuttered ITV that would make the Property Brothers proud, the result is a space that is at once upscale and casual while also romantic and friendly. It’s somehow as appropriate to wear a suit and tie as it is to wear your laundry-day tee and jeans.
Friends celebrate birthdays with drink specials written on the colorful chalkboard menu, couples clink glasses on a sexy 5th or 50th date, and someone jokes about buying the Laurel cookbook near the plant wall—just so they can bring up the food to anyone who enters their home. Erykah Badu or Otis Redding plays while elaborate floral arrangements—brought in by the chef’s wife—sit in each corner. And, thanks to the low lighting, everything down to the mirror-lined wall has the glow of a lantern festival and feels just as enchanting.
None of this should be surprising, considering the restaurant comes from the team behind (the also-glimmering) Lark. And just like their sister in Bala Cynwyd, Laurel’s service is flawless. So whether you’re sitting at the roomy bar (where they serve the full menu), at the private dining patio out back, or in the main dining room, you’ll think the staff knew you in a past life. It’s all formal, but not fancy, and proves that a special occasion doesn’t have to be a stuffy one.
Dining at upscale restaurants can, occasionally, be a blur of the same crudos, pastas, and New York strips. Laurel’s seasonal menu feels like a welcome record scratch to the routine. The menu is now a la carte, but you can also let the chef take the wheel with a six-course, $98 carte blanche tasting. Either way, you’ll be met with dishes brimming with so much originality that it will feel like you’re eating the ingredients for the first time. Oysters are topped with pickled serrano and gelée, boquerones are layered on buttery sourdough brioche, and beautifully salted mussels wear blankets of red baby romaine instead of sitting in a broth. While some dishes look simple, each combination is a revelation in texture and taste (especially the gnocchi, which are the best in the city).
You’ll want to try everything on the menu (and that can get pricey), so save it for when you want to go all-out without an ounce of overblown extravagance. A night at Laurel is up there with a random Allen Iverson encounter—an experience every Philadelphian needs to have to believe.
The menu changes seasonally, but here are a few examples of things you might see.
There’s not a more refreshing way to start your meal here. Oysters are topped with a melt-in-your-mouth Thai chili gelée and pickled serrano pepper. It’s the perfect option for people who never learned their mignonette limit (or just love oysters).
What do we like the best about these boquerones? Is it the beautifully doughy yet airy sourdough brioche? The wilted pepper spread on top that gives it a kick? Or the pleasantly salty anchovies? It’s all of the above, in one perfect bite. Order them.
This dish will convert even the celery hater in your life. Tossed with ricotta salata, dates, and walnuts, it’s sweet, crunchy, and will have you actually admiring the range of a green vegetable that’s not broccoli or ramps.
This is a gnocchi that you’d (potentially) trade a distant relative for a lifetime supply of. You’ll wish the Groundhog Day glitch actually existed just so you could eat it daily. It’s perfectly firm yet doughy, while the chicken jus is rich and satisfying. It’s basically chicken and dumplings’ fancy French cousin that’s always the life of the party.
If you covered your eyes and plopped your spoon into this bowl of clams, wherever you land is a win. Because you’re either getting a warm, plump clam topped with salty trout roe, or a spoonful of buttery vin jaune broth. Order a bowl for the table.
We could eat these scallops until the end of time. Forget Bitcoin—these large, delicate scallops should be the new world currency. They’re seared beautifully, surrounded by an oyster cream sauce, and topped with leeks for a perfect crunch.
28-Day Dry-Aged Beef
Even if you’re full by the end of your meal, you’ll find room for this steak. It’s dry-aged, making it really tender, and it comes with strips of earthy black radish on top. We’ve also had a sweeter version, topped with ribbons of apricot. Either way, it’s great.